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Passengers (Thomas Newman)

January 29, 2017


Thomas Newman, 2016, Sony Classical
26 tracks, 68:32

Thomas Newman received his 14th Oscar nomination for Passengers. I stepped onboard his score and let him take me on a journey (as a musical passenger… get it).

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early. Directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), it stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt; and features an Oscar-nominated score by Thomas Newman (it’s his 14th nomination).

What does it sound like?

It sounds like Thomas Newman, is the easiest way to describe it. Over the last couples of decades (and most definitely since American Beauty) Newman has employed a very specific and very recognisable style that revolves largely around short but quirky motifs, plucked and malleted sounds, off-kilter woodwinds and electronic manipulations. A less respectful description would be: there’s a lot of plinky-plonky stuff going on in his music. Passengers is, initially, no different. It’s got all sorts of tinkling and plucked arpeggios. It’s got some quirky piano motifs. It’s got the composer’s trademark string-writing. If anything… it may have a more electronic feel to it than most of his other scores. I mean, it’s set in space after all.

So, here’s my problem. As the score commences, I’m ‘treated’ to all these familiar sounds and techniques. Going through the first handful of cues, and my first reaction is a cynical one. Can Newman not do anything else? Is there really a place in space for his quirky piano motifs? Or for his Indian-sounding fluttering flute? Many of us critics have been criticising modern scores for their lack of emotion, often due to their minimal compositional styles. To a degree, I think Newman falls in the same category. It’s obvious to me that he puts in a tremendous amount of effort in to the sound and style of his music. It’s multi-layered, it’s all quite complex. But I do feel that it’s often emotionally neutral. Put it against a happy scene, and it’ll sound victorious. Put the same piece against a sad scene, and it’ll sound bittersweet. I know I am overgeneralising, I suspect you don’t like me doing it (and I’m doing it deliberately), but deep down I think I’ve got a point. So… the first ten cues or so on Passengers are all pleasant enough, nothing to dislike, but the above argument is swirling around in my head.

But here’s the thing. I like Thomas Newman. I like his style. I like his plinky plonky stuff. And Passengers… well, it’s as good as they come. I’ve been really enjoying this score over the past few weeks – in fact, more so than other recent scores by the composer. Something just clicks on Passengers. And it happens around track 11 (“Build  A House…”). Now this too is as typical as Newman gets, but it’s so utterly lovely. But then, the score takes a turn for the dark side. Dramatic brass chords, agitated string ostinati, thundering timpani’s… all of a sudden the score is turned on its head. It’s dramatic, intense, suspenseful – even action packed at times. It’s not the best action music Newman has written and I suspect that the brass is sampled (which is distracting me a little), but I love the juxtaposition against the earlier cues.

And as the suspense resolves, Newman returns to his upbeat material. The last three cues are his usual light-weight quirky style again, but after that dramatic mid-section it feels like coming home to an old friend – and it feels so good.

Is it any good?

It’s Thomas Newman doing his thing. And everything just clicks into place really nicely. This score takes you on a journey; and not just through space. The first few tracks sound very familiar. And bit too familiar in fact; and I’m left wondering if Newman will ever do anything else again. Then the score becomes a lot more dramatic and intense. All this light plinky plonky stuff is suddenly accompanied by dramatic percussion, agitated string ostinatos and snarling brass chords. And as the tension resolves, we return to Newman’s upbeat, quirky material… and it feels like home. It’s a wonderful journey and I’d urge any reader to embark on it.

Rating [4/5]


01. The Starship Avalon (Main Title)
02. Hibernation Pod 1625
03. Command Ring
04. Rate 2 Mechanic
05. Awake for 7 Days
06. Crystalline
07. Precious Metals
08. Aurora
09. Robot Questions
10. The Sleeping Girl
11. Build a House and Live In It
12. I Tried Not To…
13. Spacewalk
14. Passengers
15. 50% of Light Speed
16. Cascade Failure
17. Zero – Gravity
18. Never Happy Here
19. Red Giant
20. Looking for Wrong
21. Chrysler Bldg.
22. Untethered
23. You Brought Me Back
24. Starlit
25. Accidental Happiness
26. Sugarcoat the Galaxy (End Title)

Review (C) 2016 Synchrotones

One Comment
  1. It definitely has the ‘Newman’ feel!

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